Summing up a life

“How long had you known him?”  That is sometimes a question that I am asked after I have delivered a eulogy.  In most cases I have not had the pleasure of meeting the deceased.  What I have done is listened carefully to his nearest and dearest as they relate to me their memories and experiences.  They laugh and they cry and relate the various anecdotes – and I listen.  Bit by bit, the picture grows.  What was his background?  Did he have a sense of humour?  What was his philosophy on life?  In this way, I interpret the essence of the man in eulogy form.  This is part of my role as a funeral celebrant.

Sometimes I do know the dearly departed, and that is why I have been asked to officiate at the ceremony.  Those eulogies are all the more poignant as I draw on my own memories, reflecting both my experiences and those of friends and relatives.  Doing a life justice is a bitter-sweet experience, but one that is so satisfying when you know you have done it well.

There are challenges of course.  How do you write a eulogy for a child who has been snatched so young?  What about the loner about whom nobody knew very much?  Sadly there are those difficult characters, who have left a raft of bitterness and bad memories behind.  There is a story behind each of those people and the challenge is in discovering it and delivering a eulogy that meets the needs of those in attendance.

These are some of the scenarios that we will discuss in our coming workshop – how to listen, what to ask, how to divine, how to write and lastly how to deliver a eulogy that leaves the mourners feeling that they have both learnt something new, and been reminded of what they knew and loved about the deceased.  They will listen, they will laugh, they will cry and they will remember.

At some point, you may be called upon to write or contribute to a eulogy. Often this will be with very little notice and in a time of much emotion and distress. This is a time to call on interview techniques, interpersonal and writing skills.

On Sunday 21st July, I am delivering a workshop on writing eulogies at the SA Writer’s Centre.  Details are available from the Centre.   In this workshop, you will learn the techniques to deliver a eulogy that will inform, delight, transfix and celebrate. You will engagingly encapsulate the lifespan of a person with your words and capture the essence of the deceased.

Reflection and Writing in Robe

One of my favourite places is Robe, in the south east of South Australia.  It is a historic coastal village that is known these days for its lobster catches, most of which are destined for foreign tables, unfortunately.

At the end of the week I will be travelling to Port Fairy in Victoria for an annual sojourn with friends and on a whim I have taken the entire week off work, and have been spending the preceding days in Robe.  Here I have been writing, and walking and thinking and meandering.  Tonight, in honour of my impending birthday, which is one of those with a zero on the end, I am taking myself to a highly recommended seafood restaurant, and dining on lobster.  This is an extravagant indulgence but this birthday won’t come around again and I think I deserve it.

Robe is approximately four hours’ drive south of Adelaide.  When making long journeys by car, I borrow a couple of talking books from the library.  Listening to the story makes the time pass more easily.  Baz Luhrman’s film ‘The Great Gatsby’ is about to be released and before seeing it I would like to re-acquaint myself with the book.  It would be great, I thought, if I could find a digital copy of the book at the library so that I would listen to it in the car.  It seemed such a positive omen for this trip therefore when there on the shelf and right in front of me was a copy of Gatsby.  It was meant to be.  I listened to most of it on the way down and was captivated by the elegance of Scott F Fitzgerald’s writing.  It is something to aspire to.

I am staying in a motel, which is a little uninspiring, but is one of the cheaper options in town.  Of course I am paying the rate that applies to two people but that is what happens when you travel on your own.  In between discovering where the best coffee in town is brewed, I have also been working on a short story which I started some years ago and at that time, reached a dead end.  I have circumnavigated that block and finished the tale, in draft form at least.  That feels good.

I have also revisited a novel, based in Robe and which I started a decade ago.  Reading now what I wrote then, I realise how laboriously written it was and how much needs to be deleted.  The story itself, not totally plotted, has merit but the telling needs much work.  At least I have developed skill to the point where I recognise bad writing when I see it, especially my own.  I will pick this story up again and try to do something with it.

The weather is too cold for swimming in the sea, or even paddling.  Great for bracing walks along the beach though.  This is the view from the Town Beach.

Looking along the Town Beach

This afternoon, having finished the draft of my story, I wandered along Long Beach instead (yes, that is what it is called).  The tide was going out and I cannot resist looking for treasures that the sea might have yielded, like a perfectly formed fan shell.  There weren’t any but  I found a shell with iridescent nacre and also a bit of wave-buffeted and encrusted green glass.

Shell and piece of glass found on Long Beach

Shell and piece of glass found on Long Beach

In a previous post on Slow Writing, I mentioned my intention to acquire a fountain pen again and to write; write letters, write in my journal (as opposed to my blog) and to write those more intimate communications.  I brought the pen with me and yesterday, sat in the window of the local library, overlooking the foreshore and brought my journal up-to-date.  Sigh.  Why would I ever go back to work???

Time to get ready for my dinner.  Along with the jeans and woollen jumpers, I packed an outfit suitable for fine dining.  I shall wash and dry my hair, pull on my stockings and apply my most sophisticated face.  I am surprised that I have reached the age that I have, but fully intend to make the most of it.  Bon appetit.

Retirement and the Dreams of Children

The myth of ‘happily ever after’. It is something that occupies my thoughts as I start to focus my dreams for the future, senses and views heightened by the knowledge that retirement will be in the next decade and that it will come with many challenges. Some interesting thoughts in this blog.

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“I Want to Live Happily Ever After.”  This sentiment is understandable in a child.  Vulnerable and inexperienced, their growth relies on fantasy to some degree.  But retirement services aren’t peddled to children.  The little girl in this ad by Ameritrade speaks to adults, and not necessarily to parents alone.  Her shyness warms hearts but also plants a reminder of human frailty.  She hides behind pictures of princesses and butterflies, a symbol of our inner child, and if we are not in touch with our emotions, a messenger of fear.

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Fiscal Responsibility

All my life I have been sensible with money.  I’ve had to be.  Some of the early life and study choices that I made meant that I had to live at times on a very meagre salary.  With frugal living patterns, I managed to buy my first house at 22, and that of course meant that my income was even more tightly controlled.  There was little or no disposable income and so the overseas holidays, concerts and discretionary expenditure that my friends indulged in were beyond my means.  Getting a private pilot’s licence also gobbled up a lot of money in my early twenties.

It’s taken a long time, but finally I have a reasonable salary.  My son is semi-independent and and I can see my life taking new directions.  I have been making plans for all the travel that I would like to do now.  Just as this happens though, my company hits a rocky period and we know that there are redundancies coming up.  We just don’t know who.  Should I be one of those who draws the short straw, I will be in a precarious situation.  At my age and in the current abysmal employment market, my chances of getting a comparable job again are slim.  Even prospects of any job are slim.  Sadly, I don’t have the financial resources with which to take an early retirement.  Interesting times ahead.

The challenge for me now is maintaining an enforced frugality in the face of uncertainly.  On the one hand, it is not difficult in that I have the skills developed over a lifetime.   On the other, I really want to lash out on the bucket list.  I would love to commission myself a new nose, I lust after a pink Argyle diamond and most of all I want to travel.  I would like to do a Motor home trip around Tasmania, and then to do the same for New Zealand.  That is for starters.  I would also of course like the luxury of the time to write – being able to finance my literary aspirations.  At the moment, I don’t dare do any of it as I have no idea how long my resources may have to last.  If I lose my job, I may have the time to write but I will probably be too busy scrabbling for employment to be able to relax into it.

After an initial panic, I will repeat my mantra to myself.  The sun will come up tomorrow; I will have food to eat, clothes to wear and somewhere to live.  Anything else is a bonus.  I have lived through tough times before and no doubt will again.  It would be nice sometimes though if there were not so many potholes on the journey through life.  Oh, and sometimes I am not so good on the frugality.  Today I took delivery of my Canon 650D SLR Camera.  I am so looking forward to learning how to use it and of course intend to use it to illustrate some of my writings.  It looks to be a brilliant camera.

Building a Retirement Village

I often think about retirement years, where and how I’ll live and with whom.  I’m not partnered so of course the ‘with whom’ questions might be easy to answer:  I’ll live alone.  That might not always be possible though, and I might not always want it either. 

So what are my options?  I have thrown ideas around in my head for a while and had over-coffee discussions with friends that have given rise to general agreement but have gone nowhere specific.  All of us value our autonomy and independence and want to live an active life for as long as we are able, part of the community still and definitely not located in a closed retirement enclave.  We don’t want to live our lives by the rules that we typically associate with retirement villages.

For this reason, I was interested in the discussion that took place on ABC Radio National this morning on ‘To move or not to move?”

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/lifematters/to-move2c-or-not-to-move-as-you-get-older3f/4640128

Guests on the program and those who rang in discussed many of those issues that I have cited: the need for control and autonomy; remaining part of the community but living in a supportive environment and having access to the support and facilities that they also required.

It seems that we are all thinking along the same lines.  I love the house that I have built, but I know that it will be too expensive for me to run and maintain in coming years, plus I don’t want to spend all my time working on or maintaining the house.  Ideally, I would develop a solution that is environmentally sensitive and as a consequence cheaper to run and maintain.  Besides the facility that I have now – lots of storage, cleanable surfaces, welcoming character and atmosphere – I would like to build a place also that has those sacred and secret places either inside or outside.  I would like to be able to entertain guests or dare I hope, one day the grandchildren.  My secret indulgent wish is that I could also have a heated lap pool as I love swimming.

There are advantages to looking at a combined development – one that takes you into the future with shared facilities (I’m happy to share the pool), reduced costs, shared maintenance costs and with other like-minded people.  My preference would be for a metropolitan village, as I am a city-based girl.  I like having access to cinemas and cafés and a range of cultural and artistic facilities.  If feasible, I would live in an inner-city location.  That could be achieved with buying up a cluster of houses that back onto each other and demolishing the dividing fences and creating shared areas.

Alternatively, and preferably if one had the financial resources, another option would be to demolish those houses and to start again, with purpose-built housing solutions and a site that was master-planned from the beginning.  Those who were interviewed in the radio program seemed to be taking the rural option, building their village on a green field site close to a town so that they still had access to facilities, but had enough land available to provide each dwelling with some acreage.

They all seemed to have similar ideas.  I liked the provision of gopher tracks so in times of reduced mobility, the residents could ride their gophers to the local town as well as around their ‘village’.  There was talk of communal gardens and shared tradespeople and bulk purchasing, all of which sounds sensible.  Every proposal talked of eco-sensitive design which was going to result in sustainable development and reduced running costs.  One project sensibly talked about a central guest accommodation unit so that there was somewhere for visitors to stay, and meaning that individual houses did not need to be as big.  Something to contemplate although I would still like to have visitors staying with me.

Although frequent mention was made of like-minded people, it was also stressed that the community did not need to be of a homogenous age group and that having interaction with a variety of ages was also important.  That could have be with visitors or local community interaction, or even people of varied age groups living permanently within the community.

I like the concepts that have been discussed here and have been mulling over the options for some time.  I haven’t yet come to grips with how to get other people on board and how to decide on the type of development.  I still have time to play around with the idea.

If others have thoughts along these lines, or know of other retirement communities, I would love to hear about it.

 

 

On Death and Dying

In recent weeks the topic of death and dying has been much on my mind.  Not because my own demise is imminent, but because my father died a few weeks ago, and I walked by his side during his final weeks.  I sat with him during that last morning of desperate struggle as he fought to retain the ability to breathe over the asbestos driven fluid that filled his lungs and slowly drowned him.  He was conscious until the last ten minutes or so and his dying was not in any way easy.  It was dreadful for him and was confronting and distressing for me.

To not be able to alleviate the suffering of another person is something truly distressing.   I should acknowledge at this point that my father had recently celebrated his 97th birthday and realistically he did not have a lot of time left with us.  He was relatively fit, aside from that disease and still had a current driver’s licence but his failing hearing and eyesight heralded the degeneration of life quality for him.  I am not meaning to in any way sound as though I am dictating the useful end of another person’s life when I say ‘It was time’ but in reality it was and I knew that as I sat with him that last morning.

Added to previous bereavements, my family is now halved with this recent death.  Understandably my own mortality is something that occupies my thoughts.  I have witnessed suffering, anger, grieving, indignities and depression in each of those deaths, though my mother’s cancer was rapid and saved her some of the prolonged physical distress.  I have also witnessed the loss of control over one’s life and the double edged sword on not only having to rely on others to a significant degree, but the impact on those who are relied upon.  Although not specifically relevant for me in this case, in many circumstances  the caring role impacts on the carer’s family life, social life, working patterns and even finances.  Is it surprising therefore that there can also be distress and resentment on the part of the carer at having their life subpoenaed in this fashion?

To be confronted with death at a time before you are either ready or accepting is a pain that I have not personally experienced.  I have seen how soul-destroyingly hard that is for the person who is facing that end when there is still so much they wish to do, or family that they do not wish to leave.  The unfairness of it all is indescribable.   Having said that, I do not wish to linger beyond my ability to exert self-control.  I hope that I will have the inner knowledge and resources to face that prospect and to make the most of the time that is left, and to plan the manner of my departure.  I don’t wish my life to be prolonged beyond what is reasonable or comfortable, simply because medical technology is able to delay the date of my death, nor do I want to be an imposition on my nearest and dearest. 

I fully appreciate that not everyone will feel this way about their personal circumstances but the quality of life is very important to me.  When I feel that can no longer be maintained at a reasonable level, I will take steps to control my circumstances.  Thinking about this now is important, as leaving it until the situation is dire may mean that control is no longer within my grasp.

Dying is not something that we do well in our society – we are scared and removed from it and are not able to talk about or plan for our own demise.   I support the concept of voluntary euthanasia.  Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a medical ethicist who is currently confronting his own terminal illness made an interesting comment.  

Rather than help to die, the cause of dignity would be more greatly helped if more was done to help people live more fully with the dying process.

I rarely agree with him but in this instance, I do endorse the second part of this statement – that we should help people live more fully with the dying process.  From what I have observed, death is skirted around, referred to in euphemisms, and the dying person is not encouraged to acknowledge their dying and what it means to them and their family.  That is to the detriment of all involved.

Tim Dunlop, writing for The Drum on the ABC website (11 April 2013) says that ‘Future generations won’t go quietly into that good night’.  I sincerely hope that they don’t.

In Search of the Fountain Pen

Those who saw my previous post will have read of my lament about the disappearance of hand-written letters and my intention to resurrect a fountain pen with which to better write such epistles.

I found my beautiful gold pen, which was a prize for Letter of the Month in a magazine ( a lovely surprise at the time).  I bought a bottle of ink, no longer having one in the house or if I do, not being sure where to find it.  There was much deliberation over the colour – black, royal blue or blue-black being the only choices.  In the past I used a brown; pages in my journal from a couple of decades ago are written in this colour.  The black was too sombre and somehow the royal blue not serious enough and so I settled on the blue-black.

It was with anticipation that I unscrewed the cap and carefully rinsed the nib, drawing up some water into the reservoir and squirting through again to clean the works and clear out any dried ink that might impede the flow.  Happy with this process, and having carefully dried the nib, I inserted the pen into the ink this time and squeezed the springy metal surrounding the rubber reservoir in order to draw up a supply of ink.  Of course I got ink all over my fingers – I don’t think that I ever used a fountain pen without doing this.  I screwed the barrel back into place and was ready to go – or at least to write.

It was then I remembered one of the reasons why I had not previously persisted in using this pen.  The nib design does not allow for any variation in your stroke – no fine upward sweep followed by the downward pressure forming the stronger part of the letter.  It is writing with character.  This pen however delivered a uniform flow of ink, whether on the upward or downward stroke.

That’s OK – I can live with that.  My memory might be playing tricks on my anyway as perhaps it was only with the pen that we dipped in the inkwell when learning to write  at school that such graduations were possible.  (Although ballpoint pens became available while I was in Primary School, we were not allowed to use them and they encouraged poor handwriting.)  What I also discovered though is that the ink does not flow consistently to the nib and I remember this happening before.  It soon dries up – mid-sentence and then you have to unscrew the barrel and give the reservoir a gentle squeeze to force ink through again.  Inevitably, this results in ink blots and as yet I have not invested in a blotter. (Note to self.)

I persisted for a little while and gave up in frustration.  Today, I went to one of those stationery super stores, looking for another fountain pen but they only had a small very slim disposable specimen.  It comes pre-loaded with ink and as soon as the ink runs out, you throw the pen away.  That won’t do.  I don’t want a disposable pen that ends up in landfill.

I rummaged around in an old drawer after that and found a calligraphy pen, but unfortunately without any ink so I can’t even use that.  I just went on line and Googled Fountain Pens in my city (Adelaide) and turned up the only specialist pen shop in town.  Reviewing their website, I could see that they stocked fountain pens up to $5000 in value.  Holey Moley!  I don’t think that I will write enough for that.

There were others at the other end of the scale though and I think that one of those will be for me.  It will have to wait until I can get into the shop though as I don’t think that ordering on-line is the way to go.  You need to hold your pen and test the weight and the grip before deciding to buy.  I saw a similar pen to mine, also a Parker Pen so perhaps I might take mine into the shop as well to see if they have any suggestions for making it work satisfactorily.

With my on-line search, I also found a Fountain Pen Network, for people who sell or use fountain pens, with on-line classifieds as well – just for pens.  Fascinating.  The search continues.